Off the runway, much ado was made of her personal fashion sense — a cuted-up variation on the old New Wave with little hats, suspenders and neon accessories, and Web sites were dedicated to the fetishization of what Anna Wintour referred to as her “uncompromising hair” — the platinum-bleached crop-top emulated by fans around the world. Even if Ms. Deyn’s income did not make the Forbes Top 15 for supermodel earnings, she was increasingly visible as a tastemaker. In 2008, Glamour magazine named her among seven people “Who Will Change Your Style.”
Now, in what seems like a mere handful of seconds after her official supermodeldom was announced, the Internet is abloom with rumors that Ms. Deyn, 26, may abandon the modeling business for greener pastures.
I am sitting at Veselka, a cafe near her apartment in the East Village, preparing to ask about these things, when I espy Ms. Deyn through the window stomping down Ninth Street in Converse high-tops (covered in metal studs). Her white hair is a rash of bed-head cowlicks, her jeans peg-legged, her oversize white T-shirt features an album cover for the band Elastica. In short, she is the apotheosis of a feral tween, circa 1983.
She shakes my hand with childlike warmth and enthusiasm, placing a pack of Parliaments on the table. Her eyes are the electric blue of snow cones or backlit cough drops; she periodically remembers to open them wider and irradiate me with her inner being.
Our meeting had to be scheduled around a movie she has been shooting in Europe. While Ms. Deyn speaks eagerly about “brunching out” (“branching out,” actually, but in a thick Manchester accent) beyond modeling, “into stuff that really pushes the boundaries, raises the bar ... like, puts you out of your comfort zone,” she refuses to answer any questions about her music or film projects. (Speculation on StyleList.com suggests that she might have a starring role in “Doctor Who,” a BBC Christmas special.)
She comes off as genuinely sweet, sunny and slightly dim, her punkette look the thinnest candy coating over an interior filled primarily with airy, whipped pink goo and nuvo-hippie, gestalt-y wow-ness. But this dimness, I suspect, is strategic. I’ve seen this before; actresses sometimes evade answering questions by obfuscating them in colorful fogs of positive nonsense. It is understandable: actual information limits the ability to be all things to all people, so vagaries protect the brand. But they also result in puzzling answers to relatively simple questions.
I asked Ms. Deyn if she had a collaborative creative process with designers and photographers with whom she works closely.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I just like to experience different feelings, even if it’s, like, uncomfortable?”
I asked if there was a model she particularly admired when she was a young up-and-comer.
“I liked guys quite a lot — like the Clash, you know, punky guys. Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex.”
I started to look over her shoulder for a six-foot rabbit but opted instead to ask if she would name three people who best encapsulate her personal style, right now.
“I’d say myself.”
“Surely you have more influences than just you,” I countered, warmly.
“No, but I take little bits from loads of different people,” she replied, sweetly.
Culturally, “she was right for the time,” her agent, Louie Chaban of Women Management, had told me. Models with an androgynous look often arise at times when culture is loosening its corset after a socially conservative era. During times of war, cultural trends tend to resurrect traditional gender roles, and obviously “sexy” females emerge in fashion and media imagery — e.g., breast enhancements and hair extensions.
When war fever cools, hot new looks become less sex cue-dependant, and “unconventional” models — Twiggy, Erin O’Connor, Kristen McMenamy, Ève Salvail (Jean Paul Gaultier’s skinhead muse) — are free to rise. Ms. Deyn’s look captures a collective desire to return to the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” pogo-punk unisex spirit of the irreverent and permissive early 1980s, when girls could wear combat boots and boys could wear eyeliner, and everyone could wear magenta.
The British news media has a whiplashy relationship with Ms. Deyn, simultaneously crushed-out and abusive. A panel on the BBC voted her “The Most Annoying Person of 2008.” This seems to have been due, in part, to a harsh reaction by the British music press to her singing debut with the Five O’Clock Heroes. Ms. Deyn has been known to fool around with music — she DJ’s, plays guitar and had a band called Lucky Knitwear a few years ago. Her voice is perfectly credible in an unserious Bananarama way; the single was as fruity and edgeless as a gumball.
Larger objections, I guessed, were because of excessive cuteness: Ms. Deyn’s video persona is pouty-sweet and unthreatening — Hello Kitty in a leather jacket. She seems to be marketing herself to kids in Japan, where her campaign for the Japanese fashion company Uniqlo was recently introduced, as virtual human anime for those 12-and-under. Perhaps this is savvy: to market a new product to Japan, you start by creating a taste for it in children.
Ms. Deyn opens up a bit when talking about people with substantial roles in her career: her “best mate,” Mr. Chaban (“who totally believed in me from the beginning. I love him to bits.”); and the photographer Steven Meisel, who shot her first cover for Italian Vogue in 2006.
“Steven basically started my career,” she said. “I always say it was like going to the Steven Meisel school of modeling, ’cause I was, like, dead tomboy. Working with him made me be so much more body-aware and mind-aware and creatively aware.”
The appreciation is mutual. “She’s professional, inspiring and a creative person with tons of style,” Mr. Meisel offered in a statement. “She’s a fun person to spend your day with.”
You would think a gal poised to be the next Kate Moss, as numerous media outlets have announced, would be driven to achieve this prize — i.e., to evolve, career-wise, into a hugely influential tastemaker with a choke-chain on the fashion world, whose appearance in a particular shoe can cause it to sell out worldwide in the space of minutes. But unlike Ms. Moss, who seems to enjoy exercising her power and business acumen, Ms. Deyn seems ambivalent about the prospect of being such a market force.
“You know, even though I’m in fashion, I don’t, like, do fashion,” she said. “Fashion isn’t me, even though I work in it. It’s just materialistic stuff. I just want to do whatever makes me happy.”
What makes Ms. Deyn happy?
“Like being totally conscious. Laughing is, like, my favorite thing to do. Being with friends, having fun ... being a bit daft.”
It is hard to say if she eschews her supermodel role because she doesn’t have the id or will to assert it or because she doesn’t fully understand her own potential. But this, again, may be part of the construct of Ms. Deyn’s media persona: she projects a cultivated lack of savvy, as if she were acting from a Buddhist compulsion to consciously guard herself from arriving at too intimate an understanding of such worldly filth.
Does she intend to spontaneously skip any Fashion Weeks, as she did last fall?
“I don’t know,” she said, airily. “I kind of make the decision a week before. I love doing it, but then sometimes I’m doing another project or something.”
Fashion labels and beauty companies, too, have been thrown into a tizzy by the economic crisis, and major advertisers cling increasingly to the familiar faces of movie and rock stars (read: pre-established celebrity human brands elected to personify product brands). For a model it is no longer enough to be a pretty face. To compete with celebrity brands, today’s supermodel must, as Ms. Deyn says, “brunch out.”
Mr. Chaban swatted away rumors that Ms. Deyn was planning to retire from modeling. “She’s focusing more on an acting career,” he said. “But she loves what she does. She has no plans to stop.”
Whatever hyphenates (model-singer-actress) she ultimately chooses, cameras are sure to be fascinated by her for years to come. When it comes to generating lovability, Agyness Deyn is a machine.
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